How to Make Healthy New Year Goals—and Actually Stick to Them
Every January millions of people make health-related resolutions—such as eating better, exercising more, or quitting a bad habit—but statistically less than 10 percent actually feel successful in achieving their goals.
This makes sense: When you first start out, it feels great to be making a positive change. But when the newness dissipates and temptations abound, your goals may start to lose their luster. It’s easy to quit after a few weeks, feeling you have no motivation or sense of direction, or like making a big life change is just impossible.
Whenever I had an “impossible” task in front of me, my dad would ask me the same question: “How do you eat an elephant?” And I would begrudgingly respond, “One bite at a time.” It was smart advice. By breaking big projects into smaller “bites,” or tasks, it made things more manageable.
It turns out my dad wasn’t alone in this thinking (though the elephant metaphor might be all his). Dr. Ron Breazeale, a clinical psychologist, has written about goal-setting for Psychology Today, and he believes there are several key factors that need to be considered whenever you try to make a successful change, if you’re going to be successful—and there’s a lot you need to do well before you sign up for that diet program, or toss all the snacks out of your cupboard.
Speaking on the phone, Breazeale said, “When you’re talking about people changing behaviors, there are stages within that process: Precontemplation, contemplation, and decision-making.”
Dr. Breazeale referred me to a paper by Dr. James Prochaska titled “In Search of How People Change.” Essentially, it says that people need to weigh the pros and cons of their goals and decide that the pros outweigh the cons if they are going to be effective.
That’s the first step. After that, Dr. Breazeale says, “People need to practice self-efficacy, or believe they can make the change. The problem is, most health or diet programs start [down the line] in the action stage, but you first need to make sure your decision is something you’re going to actually follow through with.”
Dr. Breazeale recommends doing some self-exploration—for example, if your goal is to lose weight, what’s prompting that? Do you want to go on a diet because your cholesterol is high and your spouse is bugging you about it, or do you want to make a lasting change so you’re able to run around with your kids and not feel winded after a few minutes? Research suggests that there’s one thing all successful goals have in common—the reason behind them has to be meaningful to you.
Now that you’re ready to set your goals, you should take out a piece of paper and write them down. The first step? Make sure your goals are S.M.A.R.T—this is an acronym that Breazeale uses, that stands for “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-specific.”
Breazeale says, “I think a lot of people fail because they don’t set S.M.A.R.T goals and they’re not honest with themselves. I see a lot of people who set goals, but they don’t pay much attention to [whether] they’re specific.” For example, saying “I’m going to lose weight”, but not determining the amount you want to lose or setting a timeline will only set you up for failure.
It’s also important to create goals that are attainable. “[Making goals] attainable is a little more difficult for people,” Breazeale says, “because we could accomplish a lot if we put the time, energy, and resources into it.” For example, if you quit your job tomorrow and only focused on prepping healthy meals and lifting weights twice a day, you could look like the Hulk in no time.
Breazeale says, “That’s where [being] realistic comes in—are you really going to do these things and commit to what you’re setting out to do? What days are you going to do it, what time on those days?” If your goal is getting in shape, that might mean looking at your gym’s schedule and mapping out days and times you can attend classes.
So putting that all together, if your goal is to lose weight in 2018, the S.M.A.R.T approach would be to come up with something such as, “I want to lose 20 pounds over the course of 4 months. To do this, I will go for a 30-minute run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and use the Cooking Light Diet as a nutrition tool to eat healthier meals.”
This goal works because it’s specific (20 pounds), measurable (you can measure weight loss or keep a daily food journal), attainable (healthy weight loss occurs at 1-2 pounds per week), realistic (you’re not trying to lose 20 pounds in a week), and time-specific (your goal will be reached in 4 months).
So, the next time you’re faced with eating an entire elephant, make a plan. Instead of stopping mid-trunk because you have no sense of direction, you’ll have goals and a schedule in place. And, over time, those mini “bites” will translate into major accomplishments.